Research at PU


Second only to air on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs, food and its interconnected complex systems are profound tools for faculty and student research and for connecting us to our own bodies, our communities and the environment.

Climate and Environment

Tim Searchinger (WWS and co-founder of PSF) and other scholars at Princeton, working with the World Resources Institute, the World Bank and others have over the last 12+ years, established global models to estimate the effects of possible different agricultural practices, and diets and other food demands have on future land conversion and greenhouse gas emissions. They have contributed to understanding these challenges and potential solutions through research and writings both at the global level and local levels; one such example is a 2012-’15 seed grant for “Agriculture, Wildlife, Water and Changing Land Use in Sub-Saharan Africa,” with investigators Tim Searchinger, Dan Rubenstein (EEB), Kelly Caylor (formerly CEE and ENV head) and Lyndon Estes (formerly EEB research scholar), as part of the Princeton Environmental Institute’s Grand Challenges program. Another is the well-attended David Bradford Seminars in Science, Technology and Environmental Policy lunchtime seminar.

Tim Searchinger, Yale Law-trained research scholar, studies how to meet rising global food needs while reducing agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions and effects on biodiversity through land use change and is an author of the WRI report, “Creating a Sustainable Food Future,” upon which the 2017 conference, “Changing Climate, Changing Appetites” was based. He writes:

Roughly a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions each year result from agricultural activity. Agriculture also occupies roughly one half of the world’s vegetated lands and agricultural expansion provides the world’s largest category of threat to biodiversity while generating roughly one half of agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions through the release of carbon from forests and savannas.

Because the world is on a path to consume roughly two thirds more food by 2050, agricultural emissions are also growing. By 2050, those emissions are likely to consume 70 percent of the total allowable budget for emissions from all human sources, leaving almost no room for emissions from energy, waste or any other human activities.

The combined food and climate challenge is to meet global human food needs by 2050 without expanding agricultural land area and while reducing total agricultural emissions by roughly two thirds.

[Princeton scholars] have played a central role improving the understanding of the land use demands and greenhouse gas emissions of bioenergy. Because 80 percent of food demands and emissions occur in developing and emerging countries, much research focuses on work in these countries.

Research includes:

  • establishing new modeling systems to assess the potential to improve livestock production while reducing emissions and land use demands in specific developing countries,
    • evaluating the challenges created by growing demand for palm oil in Southeast Asia, and
    • exploring opportunities to support pastoral livelihoods while preserving the biodiversity of African savannas.

One critical step toward meeting the global food and climate challenge, according to analysis by Princeton researchers and others, is to hold down consumption of animal products in general and beef in particular.

The consumption of beef alone in the U.S. diet contributes only 3 percent of calories but is responsible for half of all the land use demand and greenhouse gas emissions. As incomes grow around the world by 2050, global consumption of meat and milk is likely to grow by at least 70 percent and beef even more even as more than 6 billion people in the world continue to eat few animal products.

Moderating this growth will require diet changes by wealthier people, including Americans, who likely need to reduce their consumption of beef in particular by more than 50 percent per person to meet any credible climate strategy.

Growing out of this research, three food-related projects were selected for funding in 2018 through the Office of the Dean for Research:

  • A new project led by Steve Pacala (EEB) and Paul Gauthier (GEO) will work with undergraduate researchers to assess the nutritional content of vertically farmed vegetables and compare them to organically grown vegetables.
  • Miguel Centeno (SOC, WWS) and colleagues will convene two workshops to gather historians and social scientists from within the university and from around the world to discuss systemic collapse on ecological and social levels.
  • David Wilcove (EEB, WWS, PEI) will work with undergraduate researchers in collaboration with Smitha Haneef of dining services, to explore options for reducing use of unsustainably grown palm oil.

Climate, Society and Gastronomy: Academically informed gastronomy is the vanguard of the climate-agriculture-food nexus and a largely unexplored niche at peer institutions. Students at Princeton experience meals, foods and hands-on gastronomy/climate lessons – from planting to prep to cooking and physiology of dining — on campus at this level, led by James Beard award-winning chef and university lecturer Craig Shelton (Yale molecular biophysics and biochemistry). Chef Shelton, a five-star chef whose NJ restaurant was ranked “extraordinary” by the New York Times, brings and conveys a cellular level of understanding of plants-rich food in context – from seasons and provenance to soil quality, water and sunlight — as agent of quality on the plate and as potent weapon against waste.

Human Behavior and the Humanities

Psychology: Much of the study of human behavior is concentrated at the Kahneman-Treisman Center for Behavioral Science & Public Policy, which leverages the combined strengths of Princeton’s faculty from several departments who are exploring the gaps between what individuals “should” be expected to do and what people do do. Directed by Professor Eldar Shafir, its researchers study real-life examples of informed, reasonable people making “poor” choices and how policy might be better designed and executed to make it easier to improve their outcomes.

Professor and Provost Deborah Prentice studies social norms – the unwritten rules and conventions that govern social behavior. She is interested in how people are guided by norms and constrained by norms; how they respond when they feel out of step with prevailing norms; how they determine what the norms of their groups and communities are; and how they react emotionally, cognitively, and behaviorally, to those who violate social norms and is interested in the use of norms in interventions designed to change behavior.

Current scholars include Kurt Waldman, a visiting postdoctoral research fellow from the Ostrom Workshop at Indiana University Bloomington, who researches judgment and decision making related to food, agriculture, and the environment; and Mostafa Salari Rad, a postdoctoral research associate in the Woodrow Wilson School, who studies social phenomena using tools and findings from cognitive science and economics. In one line of work, he investigates the role of self-induced, religiously motivated food scarcity on risk-taking and temporal discounting, looking specifically at people who fast during the month of Ramadan.

Additional work is under way at the Behavioral Science for Policy Lab (BSPL), led by Professor Elke Weber (PSY, WWS), at the intersection of the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment, the Woodrow Wilson School for Public Policy, and the Psychology Department.  The interdisciplinary lab brings together researchers with varied backgrounds to illuminate psychological foundations of real world decisions, with a focus on issues related to energy and the environment.

As a grad student, Kyoko Sato *07 researches the meanings of genetically modified food and policy changes and persistence in cases of France, Japan and the US; Taylor Paige Winfield studies how the US military transforms civilians into soldiers. How do they experience trading in their unique clothes for uniforms, their preferred food for mess halls meals, and individualized routines for rigid schedules? Craig Upright *12 is researching the endurance of an organizational form in new-wave cooperatives that sell organic food; Stephanie Schacht *14 is studying organizational form and mission in the alternative food movement.

Sociology: Further, the PIIRS Global Systemic Risk research community, directed by Miguel Centeno, professor of sociology and international affairs, convenes scholars to study the interdependence of global interactions and structures that has caused systemic risk to increase exponentially in modernity. Tangible risks—in systems as diverse as food and water supplies, energy, computer networks, healthcare, transportation networks, commerce, and finance—now threaten global political, economic, and financial systems that affect citizens of every nation. Is human behavior a weak link?

Anthropology: Carolyn Rouse is a professor and chair of the Department of Anthropology and the Director of the Program in African Studies at Princeton University. Her work explores the use of evidence to make particular claims about race and social inequality; as part of that, she teaches a food and power course.

Tyler Adkins is a PhD student in Anthropology, where he studies the anthropology of food and eating, kinship, and anthropological theory and is interested in how people in southern Siberia experience and respond to the unpredictable, recalcitrant nature of the material “stuff” in their lives, especially the ever-changing organic matter of food and drink. Along these lines, Tyler is curious about the ways in which people respond to the material qualities of food by storing, fermenting, drying, smoking, salting, freezing, selling, sharing, discarding, and—of course—eating it. He is interested in the anthropology of the senses, especially questions of how such intimately private, subjective experiences as taste, touch, and smell affect human sociality.

Serena Stein, a PhD student in anthropology, examines global agriculture investment, land transformation and food systems in the Global South, drawing upon scholarship in economic anthropology, Lusophone (Portuguese-speaking) African and postcolonial studies, political ecology, STS and anthropology of the body. Her ethnographic and archival study of speculation in a breadbasket region of northern Mozambique attends to transnational connections of technology and policy transfer in the production of food across the Global South; changing practices and ethics of aid and NGOs in agriculture development; and foreign direct investment in agribusiness, with repercussions for situated understandings of gender, race, capital, and future belonging.

The Program in American Studies, led by Professor Anne Cheng (ENG), offers courses and a certificate and also convenes scholars in critical food studies and American culture. One such conference was “Critical Consumption: The Future of Food Studies;” a sample lecture is “Foraged cuisines, culinary labs: A food studies lens on the biopolitics and bioart of rewilding.” A sample panel from is “Writing, Food, Intimacy,” which drew a standing-room-only crowd to McCormick 101 to hear Christopher Albrecht, Executive Chef of Eno Terra; Professor Leonard Barkan, PU; Frank Bruni, Columnist and Former Restaurant Critic, New York Times; Gabrielle Hamilton, author and Chef of Prune in New York City; and Anita Lo, author and Chef of Annisa in New York.

Another is last spring’s Col(Lab), a three-day experimental workshop in partnership with the Studio Lab at the Center for Science & Technology and a new initiative by Prof Dan Rubenstein (EEB) and Dining Services. In it, participants explored how economic (in)stability, food (un)safety and social stratification may affect personal, everyday habits and decisions surrounding food.

The Center for Health and Wellbeing, under the direction of Professor Janet Currie (ECO, WWS), is examining the effects of Ebola outbreaks and zoonotic diseases, as does Laura Kahn MD, a research scholar (WWS). It also looks, closer to home, at health inequities in Camden and at antibiotic resistance.

The Program in History of Science trains students to analyze science, medicine, and technology in historical and cultural context. In addition to courses for all levels of students, the program organizes annual workshops, a colloquium series, and weekly gatherings; a recent conference under the direction of Professor Angela Creager (HIS) was “Risk on the Table: Food, Health and Environmental Exposures.” Further, Professor D. Graham Burnett (HIS) is developing a US farm and history course.

Student initiatives: Student groups, notably Greening Dining, are at work with the student team of Princeton Studies Food on “How Low Can You Go: How About Zero?” a wasted food research project for residential dining halls inspired by the dramatic reduction in plate waste at the PSF 2018 food waste conference, Ripe for the Picking. Students observed that a morning of panels about wasted food, followed by directions to participants on taking what you want, but eating what you take, resulted in drastically reduced quantities of wasted food at scraping stations after lunch. The research project, scheduled to roll out in Feb 2019 in participating residential dining halls, will include four components: Signage that indicates resource use for beef, pork, chicken and eggs; dairy; leafy green vegetables; and other vegetables; analysis, weight and categorization of wasted food; surveys of diners on reasons for wasting food; and meal reviews.